Car Care: Maintaining Fluid Levels

Stop paying outlandish fees to have your car's fluids topped off. Learn how to quickly and safely top off brake, radiator, powersteering and brake fluid.

Do you know how to refill your windshield wiper fluid? Can you top off your brake fluid? Do you know which type of water to use when refilling a battery cell? If you answered no to any of these questions, you're probably paying way too much for basic car maintenance you can do at home.


Reading your car's manual will give you all the information you need to know about the make and model of your vehicle, how to care for it, where to find parts, and how to locate various features unique to your vehicle. Car manuals are distributed free-of-charge when purchasing a new vehicle. If you've acquired a used car or truck or have misplaced your manual, they can be replaced for a small fee by contacting the maker.

Vehicles which operate in extreme conditions will require more attention that those that do not. The hotter the weather, the more stress you put on your cooling system. Some cars and light trucks also burn more oil during warm weather. Cold conditions can bring on frozen batteries or windshield washer fluid lines, among other problems. Cars and trucks that are driven regularly in warm or cold weather areas should be closely monitored and maintained.


Knowing when to service your vehicle is equally as important as doing the job. Oil should be changed every 3, 000 miles or every 3-months. Cars and trucks that are stored for long periods of time should have oil changed every 6-months. Transmission fluid should be flushed and added once a year or every 30, 000 miles, and topped off when necessary. Coolant should be routinely changed once each year, preferably before unseasonably warm or cold weather. Brake fluid can be checked with each oil change and replaced every two years or every 30,000 miles. Power steering fluids should be inspected twice per year and topped off when necessary. Washer fluids should be checked regularly and filled when needed.


Non-sealed batteries require water to operate correctly. Small cells (which look like small contact lens holders) sitting on the top of the battery can easily be popped off to check current water levels. Distilled water should always be used. Check levels every 3-months.


Automotive brake fluids protect your vehicle against corrosion and lubricate the many facets of the brake system. To find out which type of brake fluid your vehicle requires, consult your owners manual. (DOT3 brake fluid is the standard for most cars and light trucks. Brake fluids are classified as DOT3, DOT4 or DOT5.) Draining the brake fluid that's currently in your car is known as "bleeding the brakes." This should be done every 2 years or 24, 000-30,000 miles.

To top off brake fluid, you'll need to locate your brake fluid reservoir. (It's almost always located against the front panel of the car, near the windshield. Containers are usually rectangular and have a solid medal clamp holding them closed.) Since brake fluid eats away at the paint on cars, it's often recommended that you never poor directly from the container into the reservoir. Instead, use an old turkey baster to refill fluid to the "fill" line.

Pop off the medal clamp on the reservoir by prying it loose with a screw driver. Add fluid. Replace lid and clamp.

NOTE: Brake fluids tend to absorb water. Never top off fluids during wet or humid conditions.


Windshield washer fluid is a weak mixture of glass cleaner and water. To top off fluids, open the hood of your car and locate the fluid reservoir. (It's generally not hard to find. Most tanks are large and made of clear plastic, easily revealing the almost-always blue fluid clearly.) You can pour the fluid directly into the reservoir.

You can make your own windshield washing fluid by mixing 3-cups window cleaner with 1-gallon of water. Store contents in airtight container and never use in temperatures under 32-degrees farenheit.


Radiator fluid (or coolants) are what power your cooling system and protect your vehicle from overheating. Low or non-existent cooling levels can lead to expensive repairs and permanent engine damage. Coolant never runs dry on its own. If you find yourself needing to continuously refill the radiator fluid, you may have a leak.

Locate the plastic reservoir radiator tank under the hood of your car. (The fluid inside the tank will be green or red. You can also identify the radiator tank by following the hose from the radiator to the tank.) Unscrew the cap on the tank and add coolant to the "full" line.

NOTE: Coolant is a mixture of water and antifreeze. Never add plain water into the radiator reservoir or straight coolant. Read bottle carefully and follow mixing instructions, if necessary. Also, older-model cars require you to add coolant directly into the radiator.


Power steering fluid is what allow you to easily maneuver your car as you're talking on the phone and digging in your purse at the same time. To top off fluids, get back under the hood of your car and locate the small, round reservoir with the words "power steering" printed on the cap. Using the appropriate fluid for your make and model car, pour fluid directly from bottle into reservoir. Stop when fluid level reaches the "full" line. Replace cap and store remainder of bottle's contents in dry, cool area.


CARS and trucks that are driven in stop-and-go traffic regularly or endure temperature extremes may benefit from synthetic oils.

NEW 2-in-1 transmission fluids, which are a combination of transmission fluid and leak-proof additives, can prove beneficial for vehicles with minor seal leaks.

YOU can help to maintain your car by checking basic fluids (oil, windshield washer, and coolant) levels each time you gas up!

YOU can avoid frozen windshield wiper problems during winter months by adding weather appropriate windshield wiper fluid to your washer reservoir. Newer mixtures are made of both cleaners and ice removers.

BRAKE fluid (especially DOT3) will act like paint thinner and strip your car of its finish. Be cautious!

© High Speed Ventures 2011